When he released a “transcript” of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, President Trump called it a “an exact word-for-word transcript of the conversation, taken by very talented stenographers.” Trump could not have been more explicit in his claim that the White House had, in full transparency, published a complete account of the call. “All you have to do is read what they wrote down, the stenographers,” Trump said later, “They wrote down an exact call.”
Guess what? It wasn’t. The New York Times reports that National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who listened in on the call, testified that the “transcript” was abridged. This explosive report has two important ramifications: First, the call was even worse than the published record lets on, and second, that some officials undertook a cover-up to hide damaging information it contained.
At the beginning of the month, the Washington Post published a detailed, highly persuasive, yet generally overlooked report summarizing the evidence that the “rough transcript” had been abridged. It contains ellipses in several places, which call summaries with foreign leaders usually do not. The word count does not match the reported length of the conversation: It takes about ten minutes to read the White House–released summary, whereas the conversation took three times that long. It has half the number of words per minute as transcripts of other calls Trump has had with foreign leaders. The supposed rough transcript “is unusual for lacking a tracking number that would normally indicate it had been circulated to senior subject experts and the national security adviser’s office for review and edits,” and “carries classification markings that Situation Room staffers do not normally add when they create a word-for-word transcript.”
Despite the extensive evidence amassed by the Post, however, there was no proof. Media reports have described the White House-released document as a “rough transcript” of the call, a phrase that implies something at least close to a complete record of the conversation. It was not until Vindman’s testimony that Congress had direct firsthand testimony. Vindman testified (under oath, naturally) that he objected to the edits, and pushed for some of the redacted lines to be reinserted, though others were kept out.
The Times does not have a full account of the expunged conversation. The “rough transcript” has three ellipses where Trump is speaking. Vindman testified that the third ellipsis omits Trump asserting there were recordings of Joe Biden discussing corruption in Ukraine. The Times does not know which Trump comments the other two sets of ellipses hide, but reports “the [missing] phrases do not fundamentally change lawmakers’ understanding of the call,” which is already quite damning.
The predictable yet staggering revelation might explain why Trump seemed so confident in advance that the transcript would exonerate him, and why his allies in the administration consented to its release: Sure, the “rough transcript” is bad, but it seems innocent in comparison with the actual call. Having absorbed the full culpability of the conservation, and having shaved off some of the worst moments, the parts they released may have seemed relatively defensible.
Contrary to Republican spin, the July 25 phone call is merely one small piece of a sweeping array of evidence that Trump corrupted American foreign policy for political gain. Trump has told a series of lies on top of lies about the call: First, that the “rough transcript” constitutes the entirety of the evidence against him, rather than a small piece; second, that it was verbatim and complete; and third, that the portion he did release was “perfect” and contains no untoward requests.
Vindman’s bombshell opens an important new avenue for the impeachment inquiry. Which officials were involved in the cover-up? Will one of them produce an original recording or full transcript?
The hoary phrase, “it’s the cover-up, not the crime,” does not exactly apply here. The crime is worse. But the cover-up indicates Trump and his co-conspirators knew full well they had evidence of guilt to bury.